I had an interesting conversation with my roommate. I was asking for support with my Bipolar, needing suggestion of activities I can do when I’m in lower energy states, and people/groups to do them with. He suggested working out. I agreed, being active is very important to me.
In fact I really enjoy it. And it raises my energy significantly. But when I’m in a low energy state, it’s very hard to stick to going to the gym, especially alone. I mentioned that I have various “poles” or “modes” where I need a slightly different types of stimulation. One day I may be pumped to go to the gym. The other I need to play a high energy social game, like volleyball. And other times, I might need to do yoga, or even light stretching. This applies to any activity, be it work, or social. I need variety.
I continued with this clarification. He replied something along the lines of “if you love yourself, you’ll just be able to stick to working out”. I’ve heard this in many variations throughout the years:
Why don’t you just snap out of it?
You just need to work on your willpower.
Just stick to a daily practice.
You just have to commit to it.
You just need to have integrity with yourself.
Stop making excuses.
Every person with depression has heard these “helpful suggestions” hundreds of times. Don’t you think, if it was that easy, they would’ve tried it at some point to “just snap out of it”? Yes, to some extent they’re right, I need to practice discipline, and push my boundaries of comfort. But it’s really not that simple. Willpower alone won’t get me out of a depression.
This is a very difficult concept with someone without depression to understand. Depression, clinical depression, is a totally different state of mind. It’s something that’s very hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. It’s like explaining being “in love” to someone who never felt it.
Nevertheless, I will try my best. This is because I believe the key to my health, is having my friends and loved ones understand my condition, and how they can effectively support me.
I empathize with “normal” folks. It makes absolutely no sense why someone with Bipolar can’t just “snap out of it”. In fact, even when I’m in a healthy state, it puzzles me why I have so much trouble staying active and following my schedule during depressions. I can’t put myself into that state of mind, imagine what it felt like to be “depressed”. I only have vague memories.
The difference is most stark when I take Ketamine. Ketamine offers a 20 minute “escape” from depression. It clears your mind, removes the anxiety, the need for mild stimulation, and suddenly you just feel calm. Even in those 20 minutes, it stops making sense “why was I depressed?”
Let me explain what happens in depression. The levels of Serotonin and other chemicals that influence my mood, willpower, “energy”, sexual desire, memory, learning, creativity, and just about every other useful function plunge. So in fact, I can’t just “will myself” to do something that was easy just a few days ago. Believe me, I’ve tried, I’ve tried my best, and I failed. And I put a lot of pressure on myself to try.
For most of my adult life, I heard similar “suggestions” to what my friend said in various forms. But I interpreted them as: “you’re a lazy whiner, and your depression is all your fault”. I believed that all I had to do was try “hard enough” and my depression would be cured. And of course, no matter how hard I pushed myself, it failed every time.
This led to very low self esteem, and in fact deepened my depression significantly. I blamed myself for my condition, which made the depressions far far worse. They say in Buddhism that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Most suffering in our life is created by our judgments and interpretations of what is. By adding all that shame and guilt on top of my already low mood, I significantly increased my suffering.
Eventually, I ran across the right therapists and guides, and understood that I can’t just “force myself” out of a depression. It’s far more complicated than that.
I have found what actually works:
If you have a friend with Bipolar or Depression, please understand that their brain chemistry is very different from yours. They are a totally different person when they are in a different state.
They don’t have access to the same level of creativity, energy, brainpower, strength, and most importantly willpower, as they do on regular days. If you want to support someone with Bipolar, you CAN help them, with the methods I listed above. Help them plan for their low energy states.
Being Bipolar isn’t binary. It’s not just “laying in bed catatonic” or “climbing trees naked in Golden Gate Park howling at the moon”. There’s actually quite a lot in between. And there are many dimensions to the possible poles, including energy, extroversion, left/right brain leaning, and countless other modifiers. This is quite a difficult concept to explain.
Let me give you an idea of the incredible range of “poles” I may feel, even within the same day:
Of course, it’s not just all negative. I may also have a pretty great day:
Aaaah isn’t it great when my poles line up to activities available?
Normal folks experience this too. Sometimes you feel social, other times you feel playful, other times you just want to read a book. You may have a lot of energy, and would love to go to a party, but you’re not too excited about doing your work.
Bipolar folks experience these same “poles” to the extremes, depending on the day or even the hour. The same confident, playful, active extrovert, can be a shy introvert a few days later, wanting nothing more than to read a book in bed.
Generally speaking, a “healthy” person, can apply some willpower, and stick to his general routine. Bipolar folks don’t have this luxury.
These extreme “poles” aren’t necessarily a problem. It’s really how we act on these poles, and how we set up our environments for these poles, that causes negative effects.
My theory is that most unhappiness comes from an overexertion of a certain pole, or a mismatch between your poles and the activities that you’re doing.
My theory is that most unhappiness comes from an overexertion of a certain pole, or a mismatch between your poles and the activities that you’re doing. I’ve found that my depressive episodes are generally preceded by this mismatch.
Perhaps I have a pole with a lot of productive energy and I throw myself into my work. And I do amazing work — I’ve written some brilliant code in my “pre-manic phases”. The same has happened with relationships. I fall head over heals for someone and invest tons of time and energy into them.
The problem is the other areas of my life aren’t set up for high energy poles. I don’t have a high energy athletic activity, or social activity, or play. So I learn all that energy into one pole (my job or relationship), expecting it to satisfy all my needs. This causes codependency or very unhealthy work habits and ticking off a lot people (ex: trying to be high energy social in a programming job).
In the meantime, all my usual medium energy activities and friends (circling, NVC, improv) fall to wayside. Those activities don’t satisfy me when I’m in high energy poles. I often completely change my environment to try to accommodate for higher energy poles, leaving my friends and communities behind.
What’s the most harmful, is that I tend to overcommit to new and random activities, trying to satisfy those poles. I end up doing those activities even when my body tells me to stop, because I’ve “committed” them.
Because of this wild imbalance, I tend to exhaust my energy very quickly. And then I’m left stranded, without any low energy activities to fall back on. What’s worse, in a low energy state, I’m not very creative, I don’t have much motivation. I’m not that extroverted.
So it becomes very difficult to find activities that fit those poles. When there is a mismatch between the poles I experience and the activities available, it causes a downward spiral of getting into “low energy” poles, where I lose my creativity, planning ability, and willpower. And of course the lower energy my poles, the less choices for activities.
I believe that I can solve this problem by sourcing and planning lists of activities, specific events, and communities, for my various poles while I’m in mid energy poles and enlist the help of my friends. I can come up with a range of healthy activities and communities I can join for every type of pole.
Let’s start simple. My low energy states. There’s usually not all too much going on, yet still there are major differences between these poles. I might have the same amount of energy when I’m “sleepy” and when I’m feeling “self-critical depressed”, but they are wildly different states.
These states are easy to satisfy. For the first two, I just lie down. With the 3rd one, meditation, a whole lot of possibilities open up. But I’m probably not up for running a marathon, or talking to my friends, or solving a programming problem.
These states…oh boy..that’s where the “boredom” really sets in. I need some kind of stimulation, but I can rarely find something that fits the bill. Partly it’s because my creativity is quite low in these states. So I generally default to easy dopamine fixes — Netflix, Facebook, Porn. Of course I feel pretty shitty doing even those, as they don’t feel this “stimulation” void. This is where I struggle the most.
Here’s where things start getting complicated. This is where I am most of the time. However there are a slew of modifiers, and submodifiers.
I can feel:
Here I want to do something using my right brain. But I probably don’t want to do much left brain stuff (coding, organizing, planning)
Here I have energy to code. I want to code. But there are so many different flavors. If I don’t get the right “flavor” of coding, I shut down and go into a low energy state. This can prove to be difficult in a corporation, where sometimes the “flavor” of coding I want to do is not on the company’s priority list.
There are many different “modes” of programming which can be applied to any of the above “flavors”
These are just some of my coding “flavors”. It’s quite difficult to find a task to do, even when I’m energetic, that fits my specific flavor at the time. Usually contracting companies have plenty of CSS work, but I may only be in that mode 20% of the time. I need other kinds of stimulation
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